times exploring this facinating [sic] historic island.
time on exchange service was drawing to a close. I had already spent
nine additional months on exchange service had passed all the promotion
examinations possible and it was time to go “home.”
Commander Banko told me to chose [sic] a merchant ship to
go back to NZ and I chose a one-class ship named the Morton Bay,
and we sailed to Sydney via Colombo and Freemantle. The Epinosa
Ballet Co were sailing on the Morton Bay and the young bloods on
board persuaded Espinosa to train them for a male ballet troupe.
He really trained us and we were much the better for it. The show
we put on went down well with the remainder of the passengers. From
Syndey I took passage on the Wanganella for Auckland.
After two and
a half months leave I was posted to HMNZS Leander and
spent the next few months cruising the South Pacific. In July 1938
we sailed for Suva loaded with equipment and provisions. Whilst
on passage to Suva the Captain called for me and told me what all
the equipment and provisions were for. It was for a secret survey
expedition to one of the several islands in the Gilbert and Ellis
[sic] group. He told me the expedition was short of a wireless
operator and that I had just “volunteered.” This was a
civilian expedition headed by a civil engineer.
at Suva all the equipment was sent ashore. I was also transferred
ashore and fitted out with civilian clothes and billeted in the
Garrick Hotel and told to await further orders which would be given
to me by the head of the expedition. For three weeks I loafed around
the Garrick every now and then getting mysterious phone calls asking
if I was all right etc. I usually told the person I was getting
short of money but this was put right by a visit to the local branch
of the Bank of NZ who had instructions to supply me with enough
money. One day instructions arrived to go down to the wharves and
locate a schooner named the Yanawai. I was to fit her
out with radio equipment (supplied by the local Post Office). It
was here that I met the other members of the expedition for the
first time and found that I had seen them in Suva several times.
I also found that I was to be the “doctor” for the expedition
as for three days I had a pressure cooker course at the local hospital
on first aid. We packed all the medical stores and I noticed two
fairly large wooden boxes. On asking the doctor what they contained
he replied “Epsom Salts.” Anything wrong inside – Epsom
Salts. Anything wrong outside – bathe it with Epsom Salts.
Subsequent events proved him right. The crew of the Yanawai consisted
of the Captain named Bray who always had a bible with him, Mad Mac
McGregor, a Scotsman famous throughout the Pacific as a navigator
and his colossal capacity for strong drink and a half-caste Fijian
named McFadjen [?] as mate. The crew consisted of six very big very
muscular Fijians. The stores and equipment loaded, the wireless working
satisfactory we eventually sailed for our island. None of the work
party as yet knew where we were going but after two days at sea were
informed that it was Gardner Island in the Gilbert and Ellice Group.
We were to survey the island and lagoon for emergency landing of
out we ran into a tropical hurricane. This was a really tough one
lasting for three days with torrential rain. The skipper was nervously
thumbing through his bible and it was too rough for Mad Mac to get
the bottle to his lips. The remainder of us just hung onto anything
that did not move. We were lucky that the ship suffered no damages.
However we returned to normal and one day Mac pointed to a point
on the horizon and said “there it is.” At first I couldn’t
see anything but as we drew closer I could see a very very small
island which appeared to be floating in the sea. On close up the
island was shaped like a horse shoe, the arms of the horse shoe
were bout a mile long and half a mile wide. The island was covered
in scrub about three meters high with five coconuts clumped together.
It was also uninhabitated [sic]. It was surrounded by an
outer reef and access only for small dinghies to the lagoon inside
the horseshoe. No anchorage could be found outside the reef but
we managed to tie up to the wreck of a merchant ship “The City
of Norwich” which had been wrecked there in 1926. Her stern
hung over the outer reef and this made a safe spot to tie up to.
We transferred all our stores to the wreck and from there we manhandled
them to shore which was about a third of a mile away.
This was a
back breaking job and all were thankfull [sic] for our big
muscular Fijians in the crew. It took about 10 days to land all
the equipment and stores which included 44 gallon tins of fresh
water, there being no water on the island, and a very bulky condenser
to convert sea water into fresh. It was during this period that
the man in charge of our party fell and broke two ribs and the second-in-charge
had to take over. I managed to get in touch with HMNZS Leander by radio who eventually arrived and the injured man was transferred
had all the tents up and ready to settle in on the island. We had
a lot of potatoes included in the stores and those we stored on
top of the water drums and covered by tarpaulins. Our first night
sleeping ashore we first encountered the rats. We were sitting down
to our first evening meal when we heard this strange noise coming
from the direction of the water drums and on investigating we found
the potatoes just swarming with rats. We killed dozens of them but
as soon as we killed them they were set upon and eaten by the remainder.
We lost all our potatoes that first night. We could only assume
that the rats had originally come from the wreck. They were to plague
us for the length of our stay. They had no fear of human beings
and they were especially abhorent [sic] in the meal tent
when we were eating and had food around. We wondered what they had
lived on previously and came to the conclusion that their diet must
have been birds eggs, the island being crowded with frigate birds
a variety of traps for them, the most effective being a 44 gallon
drum cut in half and the bottom part sunk into the coral sand with
the top at ground level. We then poured olive oil into the drum
and within minutes the bottom of the drum was swarming with rats.
We then doused them with kerosene and set it alight. We did this
until we ran out of olive oil and then we had to shoot them. One
of the lads used to pour very heavy oil on them and then tip the
drum out and watch them crawl away clogged up with oil. My diary
shows we killed 70 rats per day on the average with no apparent
decrease in population.
… had covered
ourselves with soap it stopped raining and we had to take a dip
in the sea to wash it off. It didn’t rain again during our stay
on the island.
When we had
time off work I used to take a .303 rifle and wade out to the outer
reef where at low tide I could find a place to sit. Sharks used
to cruise round the outer reef and as soon as I saw a fin, I would
have a shot at it. I remember shooting one through the centre of
the fin and it took off on its tail out to sea. If you were lucky
enough to get in a shot just below the fin the spine was broken
and the shark killed immediately killed [sic]. It was immediately
set upon and eaten by other sharks. This presented a great target
and my biggest total for one day was four.
To fill in
time waiting for my late night schedule I used to walk along the
beach. The nights were unusually moonlit; the beach a pure white
coral sand and it was really beautifull [sic] with the surf
pounding on the outer reef. One night I saw three big turtles come
from the sea and walk up the beach. I sat and watched them and when
they were well above high water mark they started to lay their eggs.
I marked the spot and came back the following morning to collect
a few eggs which in size were slightly smaller than a golf ball
and enclosed in tough pliable material. We had fried turtle eggs
the following day. They were fishy to taste but very welcome being
our first fresh meal for months.
We were into
our fifth month on the island, with the beards and the hair growing
very nicely but our clothes — a pair of brown shorts — were getting
rather decrepit — some of the shorts having been torn to such
an extent that the pockets were about all that was left. We were
as black as n*****s and altogether must have been an inspiring sight.
One day a severe storm blew up and it was too much for the wreck
on the reef. She just crumpled up, the stern half breaking off and
disappearing into the deep water on the outside of the reef.
a message one day stating that we were to have a visit from the
High Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, a Mr. Maude
who would arrive in the government schooner. He eventually arrived
and the look of astonishment on his face when he met the six bewhiskered
and bedraggled “inhabitants of the island.” [sic]
Maude had brought six Gilbertese natives with him to “colonise”
the island but this proved unpractical as no fresh water could be
found on the island. In charge of the six natives was a Portugese
half-caste who could speak broken English. The others could not
speak or understand that language. They settled in very quickly,
building a hut for themselves out of the scrub that grew on the
island and gave us a hand in cutting the survey traverses through
the island. They also dived for lobster on the outer reef and this
supplemented our tin food diet. Christmas was drawing nigh and we
were wondering what we had to celebrate with. I had two bottles of
brandy in the stores — for medical purposes but we decided that
we would break out one bottle for X’mas day. On that day the cook
excelled himself and he produced a meal of turtle steak and lobster.
We all got slightly tiddly on the brandy and considering our isolation
we had a very good day.
We were now
nearing the end of the survey work and we got news that the Yanawai would be calling in bringing an expert on shallow water surveying
with specialist equipment to survey the lagoon. He arrived about
the end of February and most of his equipment had been damaged in
a surf landing at another island. Being electronic gear, he asked
me if I could fix it which I managed to do and we managed to get
on with the surveying of the lagoon. This expert was an Englishman
named Wimbush who had one similar work throughout the area. He could
not stand the rats on the island and was carried out to the Yanawai at the end of each working day and he slept on board each night.
The work on
the lagoon was finished and we prepared to dismantle camp. We eventually
boarded the Yanawai and had our first fresh water shower for months.
We were bound for Suva, dropping the six natives off at Hull Island.
On arrival in Suva we all trooped up to the Garrick Hotel complete
with tatty shorts and scruffy beards and we caused quite a sensation.
The first beer for many months tasted just beautifull [sic].